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Wot I Think: Rune Masters

Puzzling Questions

Here's what I find interesting about an average puzzle-game/RPG: I spent all morning playing one. An awful lot of games pass over my screen of a week, and many don't really grab my attention. I'm really not sure that CodeDaedmons' Rune Masters should have, but I can't deny that I played it from 9am to 12am without stopping. And in the end, it proves itself a very useful measure of what this peculiar sub-genre can get so right and so wrong.

The odd thing is, Puzzle Quest did it first, and got it most right. Even its own sequels have failed to capture that same perfect brain-kidnapping midpoint between match-3 puzzling and RPG progression. While the latter was definitely somewhat perfunctory, its battle mechanism for fighting via Bejeweled, while worrying about gathering mana for spells, smashing skulls for maximum attack, and then balancing your skills to best use all these abilities, managed to make something disposable into a compelling quest. Daft, certainly, but enormously engaging. And there have been so very many pretenders since, and none I've seen that have matched it, let alone bettered.

So obviously Rune Masters does neither. But it does improve on one of the mechanics. And completely arses up others. Which at least demonstrates that there is still good room for improvement in the whole idea, and the potential for a game to steal away PQ's dominance. But let's point out where RM goes so horribly wrong, first.

Er, yeah. Not exactly a map bursting with potential. Greyed out can't be played.

The premise is pretty similar. You've a large map of locations containing enemies, unlocked as you progress, and fights take place around a match-3 game. This time it's the sort that slides an entire row or column to match up a line of matching gems, which is at least a tiny variation. Enemies take their turns too, and you attempt to wipe out each other's hitpoints for victory, using lots of magic along the way. Although, very oddly, here mana isn't defined by the coloured blobs matching up to the four magic types, but rather bottles of mana in the grid. Spells are cast by right-clicking on a tile of the colour of the skill you want to use, but are drawn from the same central mana reserve. Which may sound normal enough, unless you've played enough PuzzQuest to know that's a dumb idea. It means enemies can keep casting the same spell over and over, and defending against a particular ability is no longer a neat part of the tactics - taking out all the reds, for instance, to prevent that big attack. And that works the other way too. By investing an enormous amount of my XP into one particular spell, I've discovered a way to spam my way through most fights by hammering the same ability over and over, only restricted by a large mana pool, aided by an item that regenerates mana for me each turn. A technique that works until a boss enemy starts doing the same back.

Then for reasons I cannot think of, the game fails to give you any information about either you or the enemy you're fighting. You can't see his range of spells, nor your own, and the amount of mana required to cast them is unexplained and pretty arbitrary. If you level a spell up, you'll not know how much mana it needs until you use it, and then you'll only receive the spoken message "You have no mana", no matter how much you actually do have. On top of this, there are far too few enemies meaning you're forced to re-do the same fights over and over and over (and over) to level up enough for later ones, there are no quests - proving just how essential they are to PQ's mythos - and the whole look is dated and half-finished.

BUT. But it does one really interesting things within that. How the order of attacks takes place. Here, you can only take your next turn when your meter is filled, the enemy the same, and if you invest points into Agility you can speed up how quickly it fills. This not only determines who goes first, but also can shape the pace of the combat. If you're significantly faster than your opponent, you can get even sometimes get two turns in before his one. And with this in place, you start planning how you'll play based on how soon his turn is, or just was. It's extremely fast-paced at times, but making that decision to drop a giant bomb down rather than gather more mana certainly improves the dynamic nature of a fairly dull puzzle element. When you're both going to fill the meter at the same time, getting the timing of your attack correct, or even deciding between attacking or using the green spell to improve your health, becomes very crucial.

In the end though, it's hard not just to want to see that much more dynamic attack take place in a far better game. This one's so dumb that you don't even know what mysterious spells the enemy's casting on you half the time, and the grid's so tiny that most fights are decided by luck rather than skill. As much as people liked to convince themselves that PQ was cheating, it was always just the element of dumb luck, what happens to drop into the grid. (So fair when it happens in your favour, so unfair when it happens in the enemy's.) But here that dominates battles, meaning you can lose battles in a couple of turns if it turns on you. The lack of quests makes it meaningless, the half-told story entirely unmemorable, and the sparsity of stuff to do leaves things feeling hollow. But seriously, the pacing of the combat - it's interesting!

So no, it's not particularly great, and in many ways it's very bad. And yet, as I started saying, I spent all morning with it. It's open in the background now, and I can't help but think I'm going to play it again. It's currently on Desura, unfortunately at £9. At something closer to £4 I'd be tempted to say it could fill a dull evening.

(Yup. I had another go.)

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